Happy birthday to Jesus!
Catholics and Protestants celebrate Dec. 25 as the birthday of Jesus Christ. (Many Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas on Jan. 7.)
No one knows the date Jesus of Nazareth was born. Historians think the early church picked Dec. 25 because it was near the winter solstice (Dec. 21). Many pagan religions in ancient Rome had solstice festivals. Celebrating Jesus’ birth on Dec. 25 gave early Christians a holiday around the same time. The Pope officially made Dec. 25 Christmas in 336.
Jesus is the English form of Iesous, the Greek form of Aramaic Yeshua. Yeshua is short for Hebrew Yehoshua, “Yahweh is salvation.”
The first Yehoshua was the leader of the ancient Israelites after Moses’s death. In modern English Bibles, he’s called Joshua.
Joshua’s fame meant Jesus was a fairly common name for Jewish men in the first century. In fact, in Paul’s New Testament letter to the Colossians, he mentions a fellow Jew, “Jesus called Justus.”
Soon Christians stopped naming sons Jesus. They felt that name was too sacred for mortals. Jewish parents stopped using Jesus when it became identified with Christianity.
Jesus remains rare as a given name in most predominantly Christian cultures. Many Muslim parents around the world do name sons Issa, the Arabic form of Jesus used in the Quran. Muslims in English-speaking countries, though, don’t use the English form Jesus.
Ethiopian culture uses boy’s names that include “Jesus.” Gebreyesus (“granted by Jesus”) and Haileyesus (“power of Jesus”) are fairly common. However, Ethiopians don’t use “Yesus” by itself.
The one exception is Hispanic culture. Jesús is very common throughout the Spanish-speaking world, and is occasionally found in Portugal and Portuguese-speaking Brazil. The use of Jesús as a regular male name in Spain is the most striking difference between Spaniards and other Europeans in how they name children.
Why do Spaniards name sons Jesús? Back in medieval times, they avoided it like other Christians. Spanish researcher Consuelo Garcěa Gallarěn found no examples of Jesús in Madrid’s baptismal records before 1700.
Many Spaniards themselves claim they got special dispensation from the pope to name sons Jesús after helping to defeat the Turks at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. That’s an urban legend; no such papal proclamation exists.
Others speculate that the custom is a result of the centuries when Islamic conquerors ruled most of Spain. Muslim parents have always named sons after the prophet Muhammad.
According to this theory, when Christian kings reconquered Spain, common people used to naming sons Muhammad while they were Muslims switched to naming sons Jesús after the most important figure in their new religion.
Catalan name expert Mňnica Font says this is unlikely. Experts on Moriscos (former Muslim converts to Catholicism) can’t find examples of them using Jesús soon after the reconquest.
Spanish records show Jesús is less common in Andalusia — the southern part of Spain that remained Muslim the longest — than in other areas. While not even in the top 10 in Andalusia, Jesús is the most common name for men in the provinces of Palencia, Soria, Segovia, La Rioja and Ávila, all north or due west of Madrid.
The fact that Jesús is so common in Ávila gives a clue to the origin of its use. Ávila was the original home of Teresa Sánchez de Cepeda y Ahumada (1515-1582), a nun famous for her mystical revelations who founded the order of Discalced Carmelites.
Teresa, first woman to be declared a theological “Doctor of the Church,” was canonized as St. Teresa in 1622. Though in English-speaking countries she’s usually known as St. Teresa of Ávila, she called herself Teresa de Jesús because of her visions of Christ.
Soon after Teresa de Jesús became famous, other Spanish monks and nuns began adding “de Jesús” to their names to show devotion to the Savior. Within a couple of generations, everyday Catholics in Spain began using “de Jesús.” Font points to historian Nicolau de Jesús Belando (1699-1747) as an early example.
The use of Jesús by itself developed gradually from the custom of adding “de Jesús” to other names. It then spread to the rest of the Spanish-speaking world.
The 1850 census, first to list all Americans by name, found 1,812 Jesuses. All but eight lived in New Mexico, Texas or California, places Spanish colonists first settled.
Since 1891, Jesus has been among the top thousand names for newborn boys in this country. As Hispanic immigration increased, its rank steadily rose. Jesus became a top 200 name in 1968 and entered the top 100 in 1990.
Jesus’s popularity peaked at 66th place in 2002. Since then, it’s fallen back — it was 92nd in 2011. This is partly because the same desire to give kids more unusual names infects Hispanic Americans as much as it does other modern parents. It also may reflect their realizing that the name Jesus is harder to live with in the United States than in Mexico or Colombia. In spite of the fame of baseball players like Jesús Alou, many Hispanic men named Jesús find it easier to go by an “American” nickname like Jesse.
Still, as the Hispanic percentage of the population continues to rise, Jesús will be a common American name for the foreseeable future.
May the rest of the 12 days of Christmas and all of 2013 be happy for you and yours!